So how did you like Ever After?
Goodness, I love Ever After.
Each adaptation of the Cinderella fairy tale emphasizes different elements, and I love what Ever After emphasizes. It’s…gritty isn’t the right word, but it doesn’t gloss over the reality of the situation. Running a farm is hard, and Danielle does not have much help. Danielle’s daily work, and her family’s treatment of her, throw her loneliness into sharp relief. That explains the way her face lights up when the prince recognizes Utopia - “You too? I thought I was the only one!”, as C. S. Lewis says. Danielle is desperate to love - she tries so hard to love even her stepmother - and her relationships in the movie extend far beyond the prince. She connects with Leonardo, the family servants, and eventually with Jacqueline.
Speaking of the stepmother, Ever After is a great example of making the villain interesting without glamorizing them. Rodmilla is pretty awful from the beginning, but she has this moment with Danielle:
Danielle: Did you ever love my father? [to that effect]
Rodmilla: Well, I hardly knew him, did I?
That one sentence upends our conclusions that Rodmilla is this pillar of evil. She’s still awful and abusive, but on this point, she’s not wrong. She did barely know her new husband, and she was left with three children, a household, and a farm to run. Again, this does not excuse her actions, but her hesitation when saying the “I hardly knew him” forces us to consider as a person, as a woman who has also had bad things happen to her. She says her nicest comment to Danielle right after that - “you have so much of your father in you” - but is quickly self-conscious of the vulnerability and masks it with more insults. Rodmilla eventually sacrifices that good moment by her ruthless comment to Danielle’s agonized plea of “Did you ever love me?” - “How could anyone love a pebble in their shoe?”. Giving Rodmilla an actual arc as a character makes her far worse than if she had just been Evil McGee.
Ever After also has a “this isn’t funny anymore” moment: Danielle is whipped. Danielle is also forced to choose between her father’s last gift to her (Utopia) and her mother’s shoes, with the unchosen item being tossed in the fire. She loses both items. Her reunion with Henry at the end has palpable relief (for her and for the viewer), because her physical safety is now guaranteed. Other adaptations usually don’t take the abuse that far.
I suppose consequence or cost is why this movie works so well. Danielle’s smart, but so are her stepmother and stepsister. Danielle has a satisfying badass moment when she punches Marguerite in the face, but she has to watch Marguerite take her mother’s shoes, and burn her father’s book. Danielle stays out with Henry, deepening her relationship with him and befriending the gypsies, and is whipped for her behavior. She is given all of 60 seconds of the spotlight at the ball before having her wings ripped off. As a final touch, Danielle is sold into slavery to pay off debts. She fights her way out, but not before she is chained, carted off, and assaulted by Le Pieu. The movie dances nimbly between the sweetness of the Cinderella story and the reality of the darkness that she fights against.
Danielle is clever. Cinderellas are never dumb, but Danielle is more strategic about how she interacts with her family; she knows that her safest bet is to pretend to be unintelligent. She is well-read and intelligent without being obnoxious. Both she and Henry have a web of friendships and complex relationships with family - their love story doesn’t exist in a vacuum. She is creative and independent without suffering from Strong Female Character syndrome. She suffers, and she still chooses to be kind - the heart of every version of Cinderella, and the reason why I love her.